Forest Elephant’s Foot and Elephant’s Root.

Rodney Moffett (Research associate, Dept. of Plant Sciences, UFS) contributing with a series of articles regarding the more interesting plants in the Clarens Village Conservancy.

Scientific names

In this series there will be the inevitable use of scientific names so a brief explanation is called for.

All living things have a scientific name known as a binomial, e.g. Homo sapiens, the name for humans. Homo (human) is the genus name and sapiens (wisdom), the specific epithet, the two making up the species name. All scientific names are in Latin and are universal, i.e. the same in any language. As any organism can have only one name, it makes for consistency, unlike common or vernacular names, whereby the same organism may have many names.

 

I begin the series with a look at two plants with an elephant connection, viz. Forest Elephant’s Foot and Elephant’s Root.

Forest Elephant’s Foot, also known as Wild Yam, Olifantsvoet & Wildeknol in Afrikaans and Ingwevu & Ufudu in isiZulu. There is no recorded name for it in Sesotho.

Its scientific name is Dioscorea sylvatica, the genus name honouring Dioscorides the Greek physician, whose Materia Medica was the leading source of the use of medicinal plants throughout the Middle Ages. The specific epithet means “of the forest”.

The leaves are shiny, dark green and heart-shaped and the flowers are small, yellowish-green, in hanging spikes. The common name refers to the large tuber (root) with corky protruberances, which in older specimens supposedly resembles the foot of an elephant. In the CVC these tubers are underground.

The tuber contains diosgenin which is or was used to prepare cortisone, perhaps explaining why it is used by the Zulu people for treating cuts, wounds, blood problems and chest complaints.

Elephant’s root, also known as Baswortel & Olifantswortel in Afrikaans and Ugweje & Umdabu in isiZulu. The Basotho appear not to use it and have no name for it.

The species name, Elephantorrhiza elephantina, is derived from the large subterranean rhizome (rhiza = root), which resembles an elephant’s trunk.

This is a dwarf shrub whose main biomass is underground in the form of a long woody rhizome. The leaves are divided and up to 1 m tall and the creamy/yellow flowers are borne in spikes at the base of the plant.

It is not plentiful but may be seen in the higher grassland parts of the conservancy. The Zulu roast the beans as a substitute for coffee and also use the plant medicinally.

Sources: Pooley, Elsa. 1998. Field Guide to Wild Flowers of Kwazulu-Natal; Pooley, Elsa. 2003. Mountain Flowers.

The Forest Elephant’s Foot is a deciduous, slender climber occurring in scrub forest and in the CVC may reach up to 4m high.

Image: Wim Wybenga

Being a legume, the Elephant’s root bears fruit which are flattened brown pods.

Image: R O Moffett